Book Twenty-One: The Prince of the Marshes

The Prince of the Marshes is about a year in Iraq.  But it’s a pretty extraordinary year; Rory Stewart, the author, worked with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in an attempt to rebuild Iraq, establish some sort of government, and prepare the country so that it could be handed back to the Iraqis.

It was quite fascinating to read, because the workings of the Provisional government largely went unsung in most of the world, and to hear Stewart’s description, that’s pretty unfortunate. He talked about spending millions to rebuild schools and hospitals, constantly working with feuding tribes to try and establish some sort of order and to create infrastructure, and butting heads with the military and his assistants as he struggled to do what he thought was best for the Iraqi people.

He also described the slow breakdown in the province he worked in, in such a way that by the end of the book, he felt as if he had never been there. He started out in Amara and later moved to Nasiriyah; when he returned to Amara, no one remembered that he had been there. In Nasiriyah, he endured three days of mortar attacks from insurgents while the Italian military refused to help him, and they ultimately had to abandon the office and their work there.

Stewart has a love for the Arab world which really shows in this book. He made an active effort to learn as much Arabic as possible, and he is obviously very knowledgeable about Iraqi culture and history; if half of the coalition government authorities were as dedicated and selfless as he was, it is a bitter disappointment that their efforts bore so little fruit.

He talked about meeting people in his office one day and being shot at by them the next, which must have been incredibly frustrating, to say the least. He also discussed constant battle with Baghdad over things like getting monies for payrolls, and establishing policies which he thought were sensible; it sounds like authorities in Baghdad didn’t seem to really realize what was going on in the provinces, and weren’t prepared to deal with the complex issues there.

In his epilogue, he discusses many of the problems with the way that the CPA was set up, and ways in which administration of occupied nations might be improved in the future. For example, rotating administrators every six months or so is very inefficient, because it doesn’t give them a chance to connect with the community and actually do things. This point has also been made by many members of the military. He points out that the debate over measurements of progress in Iraq is pretty meaningless, that we need to rethink  our place there; he believes that only the Iraqis can rebuild the nation we have destroyed, and I think he might be right.


The Prince of the Marshes, by Rory Stewart. Published 2006, 405 pages. Travel.